Discovering What the Eyes Can’t See

July 19, 2017

While growing up in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood, no one pushed Oscar Jimenez toward an education or career in science: not his parents, not even his teachers. Yet, he felt drawn to it. As a child, he imagined what he describes as universes within universes all around him, hidden systems driving every living thing. And like any good young scientist in the making, he wondered about those things he could not see.

Today, as second-year student in the Doctor of Philosophy in Integrated Biomedical Sciences program at Rush University’s Graduate College, Jimenez is gaining the tools to better understand some of those tiny universes. And thanks to the Rush Initiative to Maximize Student Development (IMSD) program — a National Institutes of Health-funded PhD training grant for underrepresented minority students — he also participates in activities that help build skills such as grant writing and fiscal management of a laboratory.

Together, these tools are helping Jimenez develop into a productive student and scientist who sees how diseases develop, how cells respond and how genes operate. And some day, somewhere, he hopes to apply what he’s learning now to unearth answers that lead to better disease treatments.

We talked to Jimenez about his journey to graduate school, his experiences at Rush and his thoughts about the future.

Why did you choose to pursue an education in science?

Oscar Jimenez: I wasn’t brought up to be a scientist. My parents didn’t really encourage me to pursue any subject in particular in school, but they definitely stressed the importance of doing well – which I did most of the time. And they provided me with the opportunities that they were unable to access when they were younger, for which I’m eternally grateful. As a kid, though, I couldn’t help but see how much science was at work and how much our lives depended on it. For example, I knew I couldn’t see without science. But thanks to someone else’s application of the scientific method, I had glasses that allowed me to read.

And there was something so wondrous about there being a universe in every living being and even universes within universes, when you think about it. While we can only see the extremity, through methodical application of the scientific method we build upon the knowledge of the past so we can glimpse into those universes and obtain important information. It may not be perfect, because humans aren’t perfect, but it’s the best method we have available to understand our complex reality.

When it comes to advancing health care and developing treatments, you have to approach it from a scientific perspective. You must observe, test, gather data, compare. And you must do it again and again until you can feel confident about your findings. Anything else is immoral in my mind. So, I’m glad to have found a place where I can work to improve how we develop reliable research that can be used to improve how we approach diseases.

What brought you to Rush University?

I had received my bachelor’s degree from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, in biology with a minor in chemistry. But I didn’t feel like I had the maturity or focus to jump right into graduate school. For about a year after graduation, I worked as a pharmacy tech in Galesburg and eventually in Chicago.

I had a strong interest in pharmacology and the mechanisms behind drugs, so my supervisor asked if I had thought about getting a doctorate in pharmacology, and she mentioned Rush. I didn’t know anything about Rush at the time. But when I started asking around, I found friends and family who had gone to Rush for their health care. They all had nothing but good things to say about Rush. So, I was intrigued about Rush University and did some internet research.

I was drawn to the integrated biomedical sciences (IBS) master’s and PhD programs. They appealed to me because they covered a swath of subjects I wanted a deeper understanding of. I really wanted to look at the deeper questions about biology and physiology. Both the master’s and PhD programs just really spoke to me and my interests. The Master of Science in Biotechnology program at Rush acted as the catalyst for me to make my final decision in joining the IBS PhD program.  

Tell me about your participation in the Rush Initiative to Maximize Student Development (IMSD) Program and the resources it provides.

The IMSD program has been a bonus. Certainly, the funding has been enormously helpful. But I’ve especially appreciated the opportunities it has given me to focus on strengthening my communication skills and learn about different managerial styles. I think both are incredibly valuable in terms of professional development, and they’re great life skills that help you build outside relationships. My biggest takeaway so far has been gaining an understanding and appreciation about diversity of thought, which is so important to working in collaborative environments like research.

What have your experiences in the PhD program been like?

In the research labs at Rush, I’ve deepened my interest in immunology by looking at the development of HIV, the cellular and biochemical mechanisms at work in the Zika virus and the role of macrophages in bone repair. This program allows you to really learn the lab technology and make mistakes, which is part of the journey.

And you really develop the art of asking questions as well as answering them in the PhD program. Rather than just understand how to answer questions, you learn which questions to answer. That’s an essential skill for researchers.

Another thing I appreciate about the program: It allows work-life balance. The program gives me room to pursue interests outside the lab. I have time to enjoy going out with friends and read books written by non-scientists like Kurt Vonnegut.

Where do you see yourself down the road?

I want to stay in academia, but I’m not sure in what way. I like to keep my options open. That’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to immunology: It’s a field of study that can give me the flexibility to focus on emerging discoveries – like new diseases or new disease process pathways. Immunology is relevant to all disease processes.

And if I could inspire someone just as my mentors in college, work and graduate school inspired me, that would be great. I’d like to pass the torch someday.